Orienteering: Venetian Style
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Venice is a peculiar city. This is not derogatory. Venice fits the dictionary synonyms of peculiar: individual, eccentric, singular, strange and unique. Orienteering, the sport of finding your way on foot across rough country by map and compass, in Venice, is all of these. Venice is not what I would normally characterize as rough country, but with its peculiarities, brings a challenge.

You cannot move through Venice with the same mind set as you would Yosemite or, for that matter, other cities. The difference is obvious even to those who have never visited Venice, that, in the words of Robert Benchley, "Streets filled with water. Please advise." But more than the 'streets' of water, the defining characteristic, what keeps Venice Venice, is that the streets have no cars. Venice is far from an orienteer's typical wilderness, but blazing a trail down these streets, through the forest of homes, grand and modest, can seem as daunting as any backwoods.

The topography of Venice is derived from the historical evolution of the city from its humble roots to its most glorious heights to its position today. If you know how the city structure evolved, it will help you move about the city confidently. With a Venetian style of orienteering, neither will you know every calle and ponte (street and bridge), nor will you lose that most wondrous ability to not care that you are lost in Venice.

How Venice Got That Way

Venice grew out of the water and into heaven. As the Ancient Roman Empire disintegrated, the people fled the rampages of the roving northern tribes (Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and Huns, to name a few) to islands of the Lagoon. They came to an island, went down a small canal (rio, pl. rii), and around a field (campo, pl. campi) they set the focal points of their lives: church (chiesa) and home (casa or ca'). They named the campi after the saints commemorated in their churches and built their neighborhoods around the campo. They placed a cistern/well (pozzo) in the middle which was filled by the rainwater from the roofs of the surrounding houses. From earth to heaven (in building of churches), they grew, and from heaven to earth (from the rains), they were sustained.

The basic structural unit of Venice has a campo with pozzo, a chiesa fronting the campo and shops (bottega) below homes (ca'). Prime examples are the Campi of S. Barnaba, I Frari, and SS. Giovanni e Paolo as well as the obvious example of the one Piazza in Venice, the Piazza S. Marco. There are more than 100 named campi spread more or less uniformly across Venice (see the map). Over two thirds of them are named after the patron saints of current or former parishes. Where the church no longer exists, the campo is still named after the saint, such as Campo S. Margherita where the church has become a movie theater and the three small campi you walk through in quick succession as you walk toward S. Giacomo dell' Orio from the Campo di Frari: S. Stin, S. Agostin and S. Baldo.

CampiLabel   Place Label
Frari M   Stazione Ferrovia Santa Lucia (trains)A
Ghetto NuovoC   Canale di Cannaregio B
S. AgostinK   Campo del Ghetto NuovoC
S. BaldoJ   Ponte di RialtoD
S. Barnaba O   Compo dei SS. Giovanni e Paolo E
S. Giacomo dell' Orio I   Isola di S. PietroF
S. MargheritaN   Canale GrandeG
S. StinL   Piazetta Roma (cars)H
SS. Giovanni e PaoloE   Campo di S. Giacomo dell' OrioI
Canali   Campo di S. BaldoJ
CannaregioB   Campo di S. AgostinK
GiudeccaR   Campo S. StinL
GrandeG   Campo dei FrariM
Other Sites   Campo della S. Margherita N
La GiudeccaS   Campo di S. BarnabaO
Piazza S. MarcoP   Piazza S. MarcoP
Piazetta Roma (cars)H   La ZattereQ
Ponte di Rialto D   Canale della GiudeccaR
Isola di S. PietroF   La GiudeccaS
Stazione Ferovia Santa Lucia (trains)A
La ZattereQ

As the neighborhoods grew larger, they eventually abutted nearby neighborhoods. These parish neighborhoods first grew together as a city unit in the year 697 A.D. in the Rivo Alto (Rialto) area, in a process Aristotle called synoecism (from the Greek for wedlock, or more literally dwelling in the same house). This synoecism formed what Spiro Kostof called 'a filigree of streets' in his book The City Shaped. But the structure of the larger city evolved out of the structure of the smaller parishes. A similar community-forming event happened, according to legend, in 576 B.C. when Romulus plowed around hamlets on seven hills near a ford on the Tiber to make the pomerium , the holy border of the city of Rome.

Venetian nobility passed between their houses in grand gondolas along the canals and rii (You will notice that the main entrance of the ca 's is on the water side.) But the tradesmen and more humble traffic needed a way to make it from here to there and connecting paths (calli, sing. calle ) were made. Today, most Venetians, as well as tourists, do not have the money to use the canals for transportation (with the exception of the vaporetti on the major canals), so the structure of the foot traffic is paramount and the development of an orienteering style is necessary.

The Rules of Venetian Orienteering

From the central campo, calli radiate– at times directly from the campo, at times over a ponte. The comforting part of being on a city of islands is that there are only a few things that can occur when you walk down a calle from a campo: 1) you find water with a bridge over it, 2) you find water with no bridge over it (either rio , the Lagoon or one of the three canals: Canale Grande, Giudecca or Cannaregio), 3) you will go down another branching street (often called ramo for branch), or 4) you arrive at another campo. There are only a few refinements to this. A quay along rio or canal is called a fondamenta or a riva. A major street originally constructed with paving stones is a salizada. And if you have your eye out for them, occasionally you will find a charming courtyard (corte) to enter.

With these set, I humbly set before you a method of orienteering Venetian style:

Walk between campi, not along calli. That is, walk between squares, not along streets. What you will need is a map that lists the names for many, if not most, of the campi. A compass may be a help, but the shape of each campo is so rarely symmetrical, that you can usually orient your map by matching the shape. There are four steps to implementing Venetian orienteering:

  1. Note the campo you are in.
  2. Determine approximately which direction you wish to go.
  3. Find a calle on that side of the campo; if there are two to choose, I would refer you to the little known first draft of Robert Frost's famous poem 'The Calle Less Traveled'.
  4. Walk down that calle.

You do not need to find out the name of the calle, though you might note it in passing. For orienteering, the name is immaterial and, anyway, the name will probably change at the next intersection. As you walk along, only a few things can happen and the actions you can take with each of these are, (and I use this term very loosely) straightforward.

With these simple principles, you can make your own adventure: Venetian style.

Taking Directions

It is said by J. G. Links, the author of Venice for Pleasure, that the only direction you will get from a Venetian is 'sempre dritto' (dritto being the Venetian contraction for diritto). This is approximately, 'always direct', or even 'straight ahead'. In fact, Links adds, "If he does not answer, 'sempre dritto', he is not a Venetian, and his directions must be treated with caution." This curiously psuedo-precise term is common throughout Italy. I was advised, 'avanti diritto, sempre diritto' (proceed ahead, straight ahead), only to find myself facing a 'Y' in the road within a block.

The orienteer constrained by 'either/or' logic, implicitly expects the single 'best' directions that the offeror can give. However, this poor soul will miss the greater truth in the statement 'sempre dritto' of our fleeting acquaintance. What he is telling us is: "Where you are going does not depend on the particular path you take. In Venice, there are beautiful things on each path. Take one. Do not worry about the path taking you to your destination. Your destination will find you."

And now, to you my friend, I say, sempre dritto.

Select Bibliography


Lorenzetti, Guilio Venice and Its Lagoon. Presentation by Nereo Vianello. Translated by John Guthrie. Trieste, Italy: Edizioni Lint Trieste , Press, 1975. This is the most complete sightseeing book of Venice for those with a substantial backpack to hold it.

Links, J. G. Venice for Pleasure. 7th ed.: Pallas Athena, London; Publishers Group West, USA. This is a series of walks through the city for those not overly concerned with what sites are in buildings.

Kostof, Spiro. The City Shaped. Boston: Bullfinch Press, 1991. The late Prof. Kostof gives a view of how cities form and grow that emphasizes land patterns over strictly geographical factors.


Streetwise Venice, Amagansett, New York: Streetwise Maps , 1995. This compact 3-fold, 8 ½ x 4" folded, platicized map covers most all of the campi . This is the one I used in my orienteering because of the ability to quickly open and find positions.

Venice: Mairs Geographischer Verlag, Germany: Verlag Halwag A. G. Sold as number 406 in the series Grande Villes du Monde. Recta-Foldex: Levallois-Perret, France. This is a standard, 24 x 36" multiple fold (gas station-like) map. It is a bit more complete than Streetwise , with Murano, the Lido and the whole of the Giudecca. I used this map to derive the map in this article. (Note to Editor: no city name was given in Germany, and no date was given anywhere on the map. This map was obtained in 1992 at The Map Store, Inc., 1636 'I' St., NW, Washington, DC.)

by Joe Lomax

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